Politics and the English language: why Singapore is ahead of Hong Kong

Weiyi Lim says the difference in English standards in Singapore and Hong Kong comes down to the one major factor dividing them – government policy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 6:31pm

More than 10 years ago, I took part in a student exchange, coming to the University of Hong Kong. As a Singaporean, I was amazed by the liberalism on campus, where students led protests on matters of concern and held memorials for events such as the June 4 protests.

While impressed by their political activism, I had another culture shock in my classes. Used to English as a medium of instruction, I was surprised when I had to engage in a discussion on political theory in Cantonese during my tutorials. I was happy to immerse myself in this environment, as it was a chance for me to pick up the language. However, this practice definitely didn’t help students who already lacked confidence in English and needed more exposure to it.

Hong Kong may well be wise in its policy to pursue Putonghua, given China’s rise

Despite both being former British colonies and successful financial centres today, Hong Kong and Singapore took different paths in setting their language policy. In an English proficiency index in 2015 compiled by EF Education First, a training institution, Hong Kong ranked 33rd among 70 countries and territories. Singapore was 12th.

Singapore had a more immediate reason to use English. Due to the different ethnicities on the island, Singaporeans had to learn English as the lingua franca to communicate with one another. In comparison, there was no such need for Hong Kong to do so. However, Hong Kong was also behind Shanghai, Beijing, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan in the index. So what happened?

Why Hong Kong’s worsening English standards are nothing new

The priority given to English by the government has played the major role. English was given top priority right from the start in Singapore. Schools using Chinese as a medium of instruction were phased out in the 1970s. The country’s political will in ensuring the standard of English is seen best in its tackling of citizens’ use of Singlish, or Singapore English, through campaigns such as the Speak Good English movement.

It’s no more efficient than Cantonese, but Putonghua still the long-term objective for all Hong Kong schools

By contrast, in post-handover Hong Kong, Putonghua is seen as more valuable than English. A recent census report shows that it has replaced English as the second-most-spoken language by the residents after Cantonese. As Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching noted last year, English is seen as a “nightmare” for many students.

For what it’s worth, Hong Kong may well be wise in its policy to pursue Putonghua, given China’s rise. Singapore is playing catch-up now as it tries to increase young people’s interest in the language.

Still, if Hong Kong wishes to connect with the world outside Greater China, the government needs to work harder at getting people to like and use English in their daily life.

Weiyi Lim teaches media writing at the National University of Singapore and runs an education firm